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A Conversation with Simin

Aditya Thursday March 1, 2012

A Conversation With  

"If you be serious, if you have knowledge, they leave you alone."

Perhaps Iran’s most famous actress and also a longstanding member of NETPAC, Fatemeh (Simin) Motamed Arya recently received the Prix Henri-Langlois 2012Cinémas du Monded'ici & d'ailleurs (Cinemas of the World) for an actress at the Vincennes International Festival in France. Named in honour of the co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française and the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), the awards are presented annually to personalities who greatly influence the art of cinema.   I met Simin in Delhi at the Imaging Asia conference in 2010 and requested for a discussion on her works. We continued the conversation in Tehran in November 2011.    My intention was to question her about the intersection of the so-called “pure Islamic cinema” and performance. I wanted to know whether the intended audience for the director impacted on her performance. Was there a difference between what the director envisioned and what she intended?    But Simin, who acted in the theatre before the Islamic Revolution, was firm in her response. “I never change my acting.” In terms of technique, she explained how she drew on her internal resources. “I have a box in my mind. When they say ‘camera’, I turn on the box.” Stating that “naturally I can never be in an incorrect way,” she re-directed further attempts at differentiating the artist (director or actor) of the Islamic Republic from those of other countries. I felt that she understood my questions but found them either unimportant or insulting. Simin, with her generosity of spirit, would not have consciously thought of them that way – more likely she might have perceived them as clumsily “western”. I know from much experience that all serious Iranian film people consider themselves “artistes”. They remember that cinema is the seventh art in a way often forgotten elsewhere. In this regard, it is worthwhile to note the affinity between the intellectual communities of Iran and France. Many of the Iranian actors speak fluent French and some English. For example, Leila Hatami and her actor husband Ali Mosaffa speak French at home with their children. Simin also reverts to French on occasion when talking to me. On the other hand, Iranian intellectuals are understandably sensitive to the gross simplifications and ignorance of the West. Even when I was attempting to differentiate the acting styles in Iranian Cinema from those of Turkey and Bollywood, a cinema so loved by Iranians, I had to fight against my own Orientalist bias.    Although fiercely Iranian, these artistes also see themselves as part of an international community of artists.  And it becomes part of the rhetoric. Panahi, in my experience, is the most extreme or most vocal example. Simin, later on in discussing her own activism, says “I’m not a political woman. I’m an artist that’s (sic) interested in my society.”   The Iranian system is very much an auteurist one, and I am interested in how the cult of the celebrity manifests itself for actresses. Are there sensational articles about their personal lives? How do they pose for the social pages when clearly photographs without headscarves are so problematic although we all know that no Iranian actress would leave her headscarf on at a private function? Simin refers to herself as an artist, not an actress, in the same way that Panahi constantly refers to himself as an artist not a director (in on-stage interviews with me at the Brisbane International Film Festival.  Simin told me disdainfully that some actresses did participate in self-directed publicity and media games. She herself is heavily involved with a number of charities and only for these or for serious film-related activism would she use the media.   “I used to mix my normal life with my work (to) change something.”    So I returned to the issues of challenging the authorities. Simin applied the appellation “Bache poroo” (naughty child) to herself over and over again in interview. And as she explained some of her actions, I was astonished and a little frightened by what seemed to me her incredible bravery.   Simin talked about her early activism: “I was the first woman to go to the Actor’s Union”, one of the early guilds of the House of Cinema. Through this and other means, such as talking directly with Ershad (from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance), Simin queried a range of procedures and issues well before she was famous.    The earliest issue she brought up related to the quality of film and not Islamic values. She was concerned about the dubbing of films. Like many Asian countries, Iran was not using synchronized sound. For ease and economic reasons, special dubbing artists, rather than the actors who had performed the roles, were used. Although Simin was not well-known when she railed against this, she must already have been very aware of her very distinctive voice. She said it was the feature her fans most commonly recognized her. “I never let anyone change my voice… my body and my voice, not only my face.” The response to this bache poroo’s demand was “Who does she think she is? She wants to come and change the situation in cinema?”  So off she marched to Ershad and the minister. Her protest resulted in the rules changed and it was written in the annual Cinema Book that actors must dub their own voices.    But this was just the beginning. “After that I have to take care of my dresses.” She said she rejected clothing that was “four or five sizes too big”. She tried to keep it all in perspective by holding onto the thought that “this is something that covers my bikini!!!!”    She talked also of the battle when she wanted to show a strand of hair in pre-revolutionary filmmaker, Cyrous Alavand’s Once and for All (1992). She won the battle and they both won a Crystal Simorgh each at the Fajr International Film Festival the following year - Simin for acting and Alavand for best director.   When she was working with Bahram Beyzai on The Travellers (1992), she did not think the headscarf she was wearing would work with the character she was playing. She also believed that at particular point in the film, her character must touch her husband. Beyzai told her to proceed as she wished if she were brave enough.    Another incident Simin cited proudly was when she was sidelined in a film publicity billboard. The male actors featured very prominently in colour while her own image was much smaller and in black and white. Her hair was also obliterated. Off to Ershad, she complained, “I am not a star who wants to show her beauty. I want to show my work. Don’t let the people think about my beauty.”   My most cherished moment in the interview came when discussing the role for which Simin was probably best known outside Iran, the titular Gilaneh. Actually we were discussing her family. Simin was telling me that her brother had gone missing for eight years in the Iran-Iraq war. Her devastated father had gone looking for him. Over half a million people died in the Iran-Iraq war, and although the war finished in August 1988, the last exchange of prisoners did not occur until 2003. Their family’s case was probably not unusual but no more bearable because of that.  The story has a happy ending, and for Simin probably a very auspicious one. After eight years of missing her brother, he unknowingly walked through the door on her wedding day! It was not much of a leap to connect the impact of this to her highly acclaimed performance in the film. And it is possibly useful to remember that Gilaneh in its first incarnation was one part of an omnibus film. When presented at Fajr, none of the foreign guests were interested in screening the other two parts of the film. Rakshan Bani-Etemad then developed her part into a feature-length film. The part that she had already shot starred Simin. However, it was not an obvious choice to cast Simin again to play the older Gilaneh, who would be much older than Simin in real life. It would also be her first time in a role as someone so much older than she was. But it paid off.    “Lucky cinema and lucky me to (have found) each other.”   So how did Simin come to cinema? How did she have the confidence as a young unknown actress to stand up so firmly for her craft?   Simin grew up in a family that encouraged art – her father was chief of the Fire Department, but her mother made all the children dance before breakfast! “I grew up in a family, they were so happy. They make us very rich in our mind… they make us so rich in our mind,” she emphasized.   And “my normal life mixed with art.” Simin is a child of Kanoon, the wonderful Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children & Young Adults, established more that forty years ago and responsible both for producing so much for children in all areas of the arts, and for nurturing filmmakers such as Kiarostami. When she was eight, she had her first involvement with film here and it was still a vivid memory for her. Some of her drawings (and those of her brother) were used in an animation based on the children’s nursery rhyme,Atal Matal Tootooleh by Noureddin Zarrinkelk (1974).   During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, theatre, with its wonderfully rich tradition, was suddenly banned. Foreign plays could no longer be performed. Within a month, Simin, who started out in puppetry, moved on to cinema.   “I hate digital camera…”   What Simin said about television was most revealing. She has played in several long-running television series but “I hate digital camera. Just how I am accepting the light…. I play but it must be 16mm or 35mm(!)” While she claimed she was not interested in television, she acknowledged that it was an important medium because it reached out to the people. “My father said, ‘you feel that you are an intellectual. You are for the people. Do you think about the people that live in the mountain that you can make them happy?’”   Simin has acted in everything from the broad comedy of Iraj Tahmasb to the satire of Mani Haghighi, arthouse fare of Bahram Bayza’i and the serious drama of Rakshan Bani-Etemad. Working with the many directors in film, television and theatre, the versatile artist more than held her own. As she went through her filmography, she also noted that of all her films, only two had faced censorship problems.Dream of Leila took three years before it was allowed to screen in Iran. Miss Iran, a recent family drama that traces the history of Iran from the 70s to the 90s, is still, for reasons unclear, banned.    “If you let them put you as a prisoner, they will do that… they want to crush you… I wanted to change the world by my hand.”    This brave and intelligent woman with such a kind and generous nature has been strong for a long time. But when I met her again in Tehran in November last year, I saw her really worn down for the first time. “Now the situation here is really tough and difficult for work. For life also. Because they focus on the artists in cinema… (because) they never worked for the government.”    I attended her theatre performance, Thebes, and afterwards we had dinner. In a court hearing just two weeks earlier, she was banned from the screen for the second time since Cannes 2010. Such a ban is effected by refusing a casting permit to any director. She had fought in her own way, showing her usual bravery. Despite her lawyer’s recommendation, she insisted on attending the hearing and speaking to the judge herself, rather than paying the enormous fee to get a private court and close her file. It was five hours of investigation and accusations.    As she stated to them, “I am an artist, I am not a political person. So I show the good face of the Iranian artist. I never did anything that damaged the visage or the view of my country. It was so easy to use the situation but I never did that.”    Their response was that because she was a prominent personality, she must set a good example. Hence, a huge bail of $10,000 was imposed on her. Fortunately the House of Cinema (recently disbanded) assisted her.    But that was not the end of it. She was also required to apologise for her unseemly behaviour. In Simin’s case, she was accused of not wearing the ?ijab (headscarf for lady) whilst out of the country. There was also intimidation by the Basij, an auxiliary force in Iran that engages in the policing of morals. Simin won the Best Actress award in Montreal for her role in Here Without Me. The film was currently released in Iran. She was the lead and clearly featured in the banners for advertising the film. However, the Basij publicly burned these.    But it seems that Simin has more fight left in her. “I want to stay. I am sure that if I work in cinema very soon, I will show my position now. (Of) how they damage everything inside me. I will show that.”    For her artistry and activism, she was awarded the prestigious Prix Henri-Langlois in January 2012 and Best Actress at the Montreal Film Festival last year. She continues to be held in high esteem by her people and the international community. My best wishes are with this quiet but determined lady.

by Anne Demy-Geroe

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